The events of Let the Circle be Unbroken take place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but a cursory knowledge of race relations in the years leading up to this is beneficial for readers.
Ratified just after the Civil War in 1865, the 13th Amendment declared slavery unconstitutional and provided hope for African Americans that they would be able to finally gain their civil rights. The immediate postwar years of Reconstruction were characterized by some gains, such as the 14th amendment, which reversed Dred Scott v. Sanford and gave African Americans their citizenship, and the 15th amendment, which said the right to vote could not be restricted based on one’s race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Federal troops were sent into the South to oversee the implementation of the government’s agenda and prevent former Confederates from regaining power. Radical Republicans in Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau with the intention of helping the newly freed slaves with education and navigation of labor contracts and medical issues. People began to seek out their family members, form black churches and civic associations, and participate in politics. Unfortunately, it was difficult for African Americans to attain their own land, and most had to participate in sharecropping on the land of white farmers, sometimes their former masters.
The southern states tried to push back against the loss of slavery and the former social hierarchy by passing the Black Codes, a series of laws that said, among other things: African Americans must be employed and could be arrested if they had not signed a labor contract; they could not serve on a jury; and they were restricted in their right to bear arms. The Radical Republicans ended these punitive laws intended to oppress former slaves, but they foreshadowed problems to come.
Reconstruction lost its appeal in both Northern and Southern states as the 1870s wore on. In 1877 it officially ended when the Compromise of 1877 gave the disputed presidential election to the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes on the condition that he agree to pull federal troops out of the South and essentially leave it to its own devices. This facilitated the growth of the Jim Crow laws, which sprung up to enforce segregation of blacks and whites.
The principle of “separate but equal” was codified in the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). When Homer Plessy, a black man, tried to sit in a white railroad car and was ordered to move, he took his case to court. The Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” amenities for different races was constitutional, thus legitimating the laws that began to separate the races in areas as diverse as bathrooms, lunch counters, schools, public transportation, and hotels.
Throughout the late 19th century and early 20th century, African Americans saw their hopes of attaining political, economic, and social inequality with whites diminish, if not disappear altogether. The right to vote was curtailed by poll taxes, literacy tests, and threats of violence. Slowly black politicians began to disappear and no more were elected. The legal system was rigged against blacks, offering no recourse for crimes committed against them and often convicting them of things they did not do. Unions often refused to allow black workers to join, and the jobs that black men and women did have were low paying, discriminatory, and laborious. Housing was subpar: rural dwellers in the South were impoverished and urban denizens of the North endured derelict neighborhoods. In the South, behavior and demeanor were tightly controlled: blacks had to be subordinate, polite, and fully cognizant of their second-class status. Violence, particularly lynching, was common in order to maintain the docility of the black population.
Black soldiers did participate in WWI but fought in segregated units. During and following the war, about 6 million black people left the South and moved North; this Great Migration came from the hope of finding new jobs and a reprieve from segregation, but many people were disappointed by the entrenched racism they witnessed in cities such as Detroit, New York, Washington D.C., and others. Race riots occurred in cities such as Tulsa, St. Louis, Harlem, and Chicago in 1919-1930.
There was a brief cultural flowering in the 1920s with the Harlem Renaissance, but the literary and artistic accomplishments, while valuable contributions to American culture, could not ameliorate poverty or inequality.
When the Great Depression hit, blacks were disproportionately affected; the unemployment rate for them was 50%, as compared to 25% for whites. As Let the Circle be Unbroken details, sharecroppers and farmers were hard-hit, and certain New Deal programs intended to help American citizens left blacks behind. It would not be until after the Second World War that the Civil Rights Movement would arise to address the systemic inequality in America, but the seeds of the Movement can be seen in the growing discontent of men and women in the 1930s.